As reported last year in the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, we humans are destroying the life-support systems of the planet at an alarming rate. The data keep pouring in that we are altering the climate and toxifying the air, water, and soil so that the health of humans and other species is at risk. The population explosion in the 20th century from two billion to more than six billion people and the consequent devouring of resources are on a collision course with global sustainability. Global warming is already evident in melting glaciers, thawing tundra, and flooding of coastal regions. Furthermore, scientists are documenting that we are living in the midst of a sixth extinction, with more than 20,000 species lost annually. This period represents the largest loss of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. In other words, we are shutting down life systems and causing the end of our geological era.
For many years, environmental issues were considered to be the concern of scientists, lawyers, and policy makers. Now the ethical dimensions of the environmental crisis are becoming more evident. What is our moral responsibility toward future generations? How can we ensure equitable development that does not destroy the environment? Can religious and cultural perspectives be considered in creating viable solutions to environmental challenges?
Until recently religious communities have been so absorbed in internal sectarian affairs that they were unaware of the magnitude of the environmental crisis at hand. Certainly the natural world figures prominently in the major religions: God’s creation of material reality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; the manifestation of the divine in the karmic processes underlying the recycling of matter in Hinduism and Jainism; the interdependence of life in Buddhism; and the Tao (the Way) that courses through nature in Confucianism and Taoism. Despite those emphases on creation, many religions turned from the turbulent world in a redemptive flight to a serene, transcendent afterlife.
The questions arise, then: If religions are willing to stand by and witness the withering of the earth, has not something of their religious sensibilities become deadened, or at best severely reduced? Why have religions been so late in responding to environmental issues, and what are the obstacles to their full participation? Has concern for personal salvation or redemption become an obstacle to caring for creation? Why has apocalyptic thinking come to interpret ecological collapse as a manifestation of the end time?
Some within religious communities, such as the cultural historian Thomas Berry, do acknowledge the critical nature of our present moment. The concern arising in some religious and environmental circles is whether humans are indeed a viable species — whether our presence on the planet is sustainable. As the Greek Orthodox theologian the Metropolitan John of Pergamon has written, the problem is not simply about creating a stewardship ethic in which humans “manage” the earth. Rather, he suggests that the current crisis challenges us to reformulate our ontology, our very nature as humans.
We need not deny the limits or the intolerant dimensions of religions as expressed in sectarianism and violence. Examples are evident throughout history as well as in contemporary global conflicts. However, religions have also contributed to liberating movements for social justice and human rights. In that spirit, it is important to note that religions have changed over time, transforming themselves and their dogma in response to new ideas and circumstances. Although Christianity had no ban against slavery, Christian churches in Britain and the United States came to embrace the abolitionist position. Many Christians became leaders in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and in the civil-rights movement of the 20th. Given that history, we have reason to believe that as the moral dimension of the environmental crisis becomes ever more apparent, religions will energize and support a new generation of leaders in the environmental movement.
Indeed, many people recognize that religions, as enduring shapers of culture and values, can make seminal contributions to the rethinking of our current environmental impasse. Religions have developed ethics for homicide, suicide, and genocide; now they are challenged to respond to biocide and ecocide. Moreover, the environment presents itself as one of the most compelling concerns for robust interreligious dialogue. The common ground is the earth itself, along with a shared sense among the world’s religions of the interdependence of all life. This shared sensibility and the extent of the environmental crisis present themselves as a moment of enormous opportunity for cooperation around a common cause — the activation of flourishing human-earth relations.
A new scholarly field of religion and ecology is emerging, with implications for environmental policy as well as for understanding the complexity and variety of human attitudes toward nature. The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, for example, under the leadership of Dean James Gustave (Gus) Speth, has initiated an interdisciplinary project on climate change that includes the role of religion and values. Many environmental-studies programs in the United States are seeking to incorporate such a broad ethical approach into their curricula.
Scientists and policy makers are also recognizing the importance of religious and cultural values when discussing the environment. The biologist E.O. Wilson, in his recent book, The Creation, urges cooperation between religion and science on environmental issues. The Stanford scientists Paul Ehrlich and Donald Kennedy have called for a major study of human behavior and values in relation to environmental protection and preservation.
The effort to identify religiously diverse attitudes and practices toward nature was the focus of a major international conference series from 1996 to 1998 on world religions and ecology. Held at the Center for the Study of World Religions, at the Harvard Divinity School, it resulted in a 10-volume series of books, published by the center and distributed by Harvard University Press. More than 800 scholars of religions and environmentalists attended, leading to a continuing forum on religion and ecology that has grown to more than 4,000 participants. The series concluded in New York with conferences at the United Nations and the American Museum of Natural History, featuring religious representatives in discussion with scientists, economists, educators, and policy makers.
Meanwhile the American Academy of Religion has a vibrant section focusing on scholarship and teaching in religion and ecology. A scholarly journal, Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, is celebrating its 10th year of publication. A two-volume encyclopedia of religion and nature has been published by Continuum. Clearly this field of study will continue to expand as the environmental crisis grows in complexity and requires increasingly creative interdisciplinary responses.
As scholars and theologians explore culturally diverse environmental ethics, religions are starting to find their voices regarding the environment. The monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are formulating original eco-theologies and eco-justice practices regarding stewardship and care for creation. Hinduism and Jainism in South Asia, and Buddhism in both Asia and the West, have undertaken projects of ecological restoration. Indigenous peoples bring to the discussion alternative ways of knowing and engaging the natural world. All of those religious traditions are moving forward to find the language, symbols, rituals, and ethics for encouraging protection of bioregions and species. Religions are beginning to generate the energy needed for restoring the earth in such practices as tree planting, coral-reef preservation, and river cleanup. In addition, religions are bridging the gap between those concerned with social and economic justice and those working for a sustainable environment.
In many settings around the world, religious leaders and local communities draw on traditional religious ways of respecting place, land, and life as well as current understanding of environmental science. For example, in Malaysia, as health officials plan protocols for malaria reduction, they take into account the concerns of indigenous Temiar elders regarding the use of pesticides and the well-being of birds that inspire their traditional healers. Tree-planting ceremonies in Zimbabwe bring together congregations of Dutch Reformed African Zionist Churches and indigenous Shona villagers. In northern Thailand, efforts to block the construction of a tourist gondola on Doi Suthep, a mountain, coalesce around the local Buddhist monastery’s appreciation of the peak as similar to a sacred stupa that holds the relics of a Buddha.
In the United States, the greening of churches and synagogues leads religious communities to search out sustainable building materials and renewable energy sources through InterFaith Power and Light, a nonprofit organization that works with religious organizations on environmental issues. A group of Christian leaders in the Evangelical Climate Initiative is focusing on climate change as a moral issue that will adversely and disproportionately affect the poor around the world. “Green Yoga” is exploring ways in which yoga practitioners can bring their meditative focus to greater awareness of environmental concern. The “Green Nuns,” a group of Roman Catholic religious women in North America, sponsors a variety of environmental programs drawing on the ecological vision of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, who describe the story of the universe in both sacred and scientific terms. In Canada the Indigenous Environmental Network is speaking out about the negative effects of resource extraction and military-related pollution on First Nations Reserves. Internationally, the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has led several international symposia on religion, science, and the environment, focused on water issues.
Some of the most striking examples of the intersection of religion and ecology have taken place in Iran and Indonesia. In June 2001 and May 2005, under former President Mohammad Khatami, the government of Iran and the United Nations Environment Programme sponsored conferences in Tehran focused on Islamic principles and practices for environmental protection. The Iranian Constitution identifies Islamic values for appropriate ecological practices and threatens legal sanctions against those who do not follow them. In Indonesia projects of tree planting and restoration work draw on the Islamic principle of maintaining balance (mizaan) in nature. Students in Islamic boarding schools are taught such principles and are encouraged to apply the Islamic doctrine of trusteeship regarding the environment.
As those examples illustrate, a many-faceted alliance of religion and ecology is emerging around the planet, with attitudes and behaviors being re-examined with attention toward the future of the whole community of life, not just humans. This is a new moment for the world’s religions, and they have a vital role to play in the development of a more comprehensive environmental ethics. The urgency of this process cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the flourishing of the earth community may depend on it.